Texas Abortion showdown: One year later

AUSTIN (KXAN) – It was perhaps the loudest political fight in the history of the Texas State Capitol. One year ago, June 25, 2013, thousands packed the gallery, and all eyes were on one woman on the Senate floor.

Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, stood for eleven hours, working to kill a Republican-backed bill that would bring some of the toughest restrictions on abortion in the nation.

“(It’s) overwhelming to see how many people were willing to be civically engaged in a way that is respectful of civil discourse but also in a way that says we demand to be heard,” Davis told KXAN shortly after her marathon filibuster ended and the massive crowd of critics of the legislation spilled across the south lawn of the Capitol.

Davis’ efforts ran up the clock well into the evening, and arguments over Senate rules took up the remainder of the time. Lawmakers missed the midnight deadline to take a vote.

But Gov. Rick Perry – who initially told the legislature to tackle this issue – called them back the very next day. Within a few weeks, the bill was back on the floor and passed this time.

“It is our responsibility to give voice to the unborn, whose survival is at stake,” Perry told an auditorium of supporters as he signed the measure into law soon after.

Clinics closing statewide

What a change that signature made. In 2011, 46 Texas clinics provided abortions. Once the law takes full effect this September, most predict there will be just six left. They will be in the biggest cities – one in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio each and two in Houston.

Opponents say many women will now have to travel hundreds of miles and several hours to get an abortion. One University of Texas study shows 80 percent of the state’s population lives outside those metro areas.

Women’s rights groups say lawmakers designed the measure to put abortion clinics out of business. Supporters of the legislation say it is only about protecting the life of a woman and a child.

Breaking Down the Bill

The bill bans abortions after 20 weeks – when many believe a fetus first feels pain. Critics say there is no scientific research to back that up.

All doctors performing abortions must have hospital privileges within 30 miles of the clinic – a severe restriction in rural areas. Plus, it is not a requirement for hospitals.

Only a doctor may administer abortion-inducing drugs – with protocols approved by the FDA.

And perhaps the most challenging and certainly costliest part for clinics is the requirement they must all be ambulatory surgical centers. Whole Woman’s Health in San Antonio already had that feature, which is why it will be among the few clinics still open.

An abortion procedure room at Whole Woman’s Health in San Antonio.
An abortion procedure room at Whole Woman’s Health in San Antonio.

Walking into the building is just like walking into the operating room at a hospital. The doors are wide enough for a stretcher to roll through, the spaces are much bigger and there is even a docking bay for an ambulance – the reasons why this site will be one of just six clinics left performing abortions in the state.

Andrea Ferrigno, who is corporate vice president for Whole Woman’s Health, said – even if a clinic can afford the upgrade – it can still be very expensive to maintain.

“You have to include the cost of supplies, staffing, physical plans, and it increases to the thousands of dollars,” said Ferrigno.

That cost trickles down to each woman the clinic serves. Most are low-income, and Whole Woman’s Health often helps them pay for the services. Ferrigno said that will be tough in the future.

“We are expecting to see an increase in the number of women who will have to travel great distances to access the services they need,” she added.

Impact to women’s health

There is the possibility a few more clinics might be able to open by then. Critics say closing any clinic won’t actually protect women’s health, but instead hurt it.

Most offer a wide range of help often for low-income patients – like cancer screenings, birth control, STD testing and other health services.

But even before those clinics closed, the number of abortions in Texas was already dropping. The state’s own figures show more than 81,000 in 2008. Three years later, it was just under 73,000 – likely due in part to earlier legislation like cuts to family planning funding.

Legal challenges

Just a few weeks after the filibuster in a second special session, Republicans were successful, passing the bill in mid-July last year. But it has had several legal hurdles along the way.

So far, it has come out on top. Most recently in March, a federal court upheld the remaining parts that were still challenged, but a new lawsuit is now in play.

If nothing changes though, the law will be in full effect this September.

Shortly after passage, KXAN spoke with Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. The Republican’s office has been in charge of defending the law along the way.

“I do think the United States Supreme Court – which is probably where this case will wind up – can reconcile both Roe v. Wade and this law,” Abbott said.

Election effect

Abbott’s fight has been a conservative highlight of his campaign for governor. Not surprisingly, his opponent is none-other than the woman boosted to Democratic stardom by that the filibuster – Sen. Wendy Davis.

While many politicos consider Abbott the heir apparent, Davis has helped reignite her party tremendously. Democrats have not won a statewide office in Texas in two decades.

Two other familiar faces from that night are vying for the state’s second highest post – Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, and Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston.

Patrick had to wait a few extra months for his nomination though, as he up against incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a contentious GOP primary runoff. As leader of the Senate, many criticized Dewhurst for losing control of the chamber that night, letting the filibuster play out, and giving Democrats a fighting chance in the upcoming election.

“The point is we passed the bill,” Dewhurst told KXAN on the day of his loss. “I look at the scoreboard. The scoreboard says one for protecting women’s health and protecting the sanctity of the unborn and zero for Wendy Davis.”

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